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Barnet audit reveals serious failings at billion pound council

PUBLISHED: 17:00 24 June 2011

»Despite a budget larger than the GDP of the Maldives, Barnet Council has less than five full time auditors – and they spend most of their time highlighting serious concerns about the way council contracts are handled.

Barnet’s billion pound budget is larger than 23 of the world’s national economies and 220,000 residents rely on its services, but a report revealed this week that it was commonplace across departments that long, expensive arrangements with companies are being entered into without formal contracts. Monitoring is often ineffective, or non-existent.

Despite the council spending £248million last year on goods and services from outside suppliers, the annual audit report revealed that 72 per cent of audits relating to this expenditure gave rise to concerns about how the contracts were secured and managed.

Formal contract

It stated: “There is an absence of signed contracts and sound contract management generally across the council.”

In addition to individual contracts, the committee reviewed corporate procurement and found that overall the devolved process had “not been successful” due to a lack of monitoring and the lack of any complete and accurate contracts register.

In the case of security firm MetPro Rapid Response which, for the first time in the council’s history, was subject to an individual audit, this failure meant that a company operating without proper licenses was paid £1.4million over six years, without any record of a formal contract.

Despite working with vulnerable people, MetPro was not forced to undergo appropriate CRB checks and was not held to any specific set of requirements for the payments it received.

The findings were presented at a meeting of the audit committee last Thursday. The meeting, which seldom attracts public interest, was attended by around 40 residents.

High risk

The following day Barnet announced plans to outsource between £650million and £750million in contracts as part of their One Barnet programme.

One Barnet has already been branded by some residents as Barnet’s transformation into an “easyCouncil” – prompting fears that contract monitoring would spiral further out of the council’s control.

Speaking at the meeting, John Dix, a resident and blogger in Barnet said: “The culture of change (at Barnet council) seems to focus on unproven and high risk consultant led initiatives.

‘‘The language of change is everywhere, in every department. It has resulted in managers taking their eye off the basics of running the council properly.”

However, Mr Nick Walkley, chief executive of the council, told the meeting: “This is a serious issue for the council – devolution and the culture that goes with it is widespread, perhaps too widespread. I share your concerns but they are not easily fixed.”

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